Before I was old enough to vote, I worked as a volunteer for George McGovern’s presidential primary campaign, then voted for him in the November election, then for Carter (twice), then Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton (twice), Gore, and Kerry. I’m nine for nine; I’ve never voted for a Republican for president, like most people I know—and, I expect, like most New Yorkers.
However, except for McGovern (I was 18; the Vietnam War was on; his opponent was Richard Nixon), I cast none of those votes very enthusiastically. In the last four mayoral elections, I’ve voted for the Republican three times—Giuliani in 1993 and 1997, and Bloomberg last fall. Each of those Republican votes felt a little less transgressive and weird.
I don’t consider myself a true Democrat. Yet my mayoral votes notwithstanding, I am not now nor have I ever been a Republican, and could never be unless the Lincoln Chafee–Olympia Snowe–John McCain wing of the party were to take decisive control, or hell freezes over. For me, what has happened politically in New York City stays in New York City.
But the thing is, in my political ambivalence I’m not such a freak these days. Fully a third of New Yorkers who voted in the last two elections behaved as I did, voting for Kerry and Bloomberg. Nationally, more and more Americans are clearly disaffected with both big parties. In 2005, for the first time since 1997, the percentages of people telling pollsters they feel generically “very positive” toward the Democrats or Republicans fell to single digits. And antipathy is running at historical highs as well—40 percent negatives for both parties, give or take a few points—which suggests that a huge number of nominal Democrats are voting more against the Bushes and Cheneys (and Santorums and Brownbacks) than they are for the Kerrys and Gores.
Less than a third of the electorate are happy to call themselves Republicans, and only a bit more say they’re Democrats—but between 33 and 39 percent now consider themselves neither Democrat nor Republican. In other words, there are more of us than there are of either of them.
What’s changed hardly at all over the past 30 years, however, is people’s sense of where, in rough terms, they stand ideologically. Almost half of Americans consistently call themselves moderates.
We are people without a party. We open-minded, openhearted moderates are alienated from the two big parties because backward-looking ideologues and p.c. hypocrites are effectively in charge of both. Both are under the sway of old-school clods who consistently default to government intrusion where it doesn’t belong—who want to demonize video-game makers and criminalize abortion and hate speech and flag-burning, who are committed to maintaining the status quos of the public schools and health-care system, and who decline to make the hard choices necessary (such as enacting a high gasoline tax or encouraging nuclear energy) to move the country onto a sustainable energy track. Both line up to reject sensible, carefully negotiated international treaties when there’s too much sacrifice involved and their special-interest sugar daddies object—the Kyoto Protocol for the Republicans, the Central American Free Trade Agreement for the Democrats.
Some lifelong Republicans (such as my mother) abandoned ship in the nineties when the Evangelicals and right-to-lifers finally loomed too large in her party and Gingrich and company tried to defund public broadcasting and the national cultural endowments. As for us lifelong non-Republicans, we don’t want taxes to be any higher than necessary, but the tax-cutting monomania of the GOP these days is grotesque selfishness masquerading as principle—and truly irresponsible, given the free-spending, deficit-ballooning policies it’s also pursuing. We are appalled by the half-cynical, half-medieval mistrust and denial of science—the crippling of stem-cell research, the refusal to believe in man-made climate change. And Republicans’ ongoing willingness to go racist for political purposes (as Bush’s supporters did during the 2000 primaries) is disgusting. Demagoguery is endemic to both parties, but when it comes to exploiting fundamentally irrelevant issues (such as the medical condition of Terri Schiavo), the GOP takes the cake.
Republicans used to brag that theirs was the party of fresh thinking, but who’s brain-dead now? All the big new ideas they have trotted out lately—privatizing Social Security, occupying a big country with only 160,000 troops, Middle Eastern democracy as a force-fed contagion—have given a bad name to new paradigms.
As for the Democrats, the Republicans still have a point: Where are the brave, fresh, clear approaches passionately and convincingly laid out? When it comes to reforming entitlements, the Democrats have absolutely refused to step up. Because the teachers unions and their 4 million members are the most important organized faction of its political base, the party is wired to oppose any meaningful experimentation with charter schools or other new modes. Similarly, after beginning to embrace the inevitability of economic globalization in the nineties, and devising ways to minimize our local American pain, the Democrats’ scaredy-cat protectionist instincts seem to be returning with a vengeance. On so many issues, the ostensibly “progressive” party’s habits of mind seem anything but.
However, what makes so much of the great middle of the electorate most uncomfortable about signing on with the Democratic Party is the same thing that has made them uncomfortable since McGovern—the sense that the anti-military instincts of the left half of the party, no matter how sincere and well meaning, render prospective Democratic presidents untrustworthy as guardians of national security. It’s no accident that Bill Clinton was elected and reelected (and Al Gore won his popular majority) during the decade when peace reigned supreme, after the Cold War and before 9/11.
The Bush administration’s colossal mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq is not about to make lots of Americans discover their inner pacifist, either. Rather, they will simply crave someone who is sensible, thoughtful, and competent as well as “tough” in his geopolitical m.o. If Iraq is souring most Americans on the Republican brand of dreamy, wishful, recklessly sketchy foreign policy, the result will not and should not be a pendulum swing to its dreamy, wishful, recklessly sketchy left-wing Democratic counterpart.
Wait, wait, the vestigial Democrat in me pleads, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are certainly not peace-at-any-price appeasers, and, Howard Dean aside, most of the party bigwigs have strenuously, carefully avoided endorsing a cut-and-run approach in Iraq.
The problem is “strenuously” and “carefully”: People know tactical dissembling when they see it, whether it’s liberal Democrats hiding their true feelings about military force or Republican Supreme Court nominees hiding their true feelings about abortion law. And Democrats who are sincerely tough-minded on national security are out of sync not only with much of their base but also with one of the party’s core brand attributes. The Democrats remain the antiwar party, notwithstanding the post-9/11 growth of the liberal-hawk caucus—just as the Republicans are still the white party, notwithstanding George Bush’s manifest friendliness to individual people of color.
So the simple question is this: Why can’t we have a serious, innovative, truth-telling, pragmatic party without any of the baggage of the Democrats and Republicans? A real and enduring party built around a coherent set of ideas and sensibility—neither a shell created for a single charismatic candidate like George Wallace or Ross Perot, nor a protest party like the Greens or Libertarians, with no hope of ever getting more than a few million votes in a presidential election. A party that plausibly aspires to be not a third party but the third party—to winning, and governing.
Let the present, long-running duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats end. Let the invigorating and truly democratic partisan flux of the American republic’s first century return. Let there be a more or less pacifist, anti-business, protectionist Democratic Party on the left, and an anti-science, Christianist, unapologetically greedy Republican Party on the right—and a robust new independent party of passionately practical progressives in the middle.
It’s certainly time. As no less a wise man than Alan Greenspan said last month, the “ideological divide” separating conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats leaves “a vast untended center from which a well-financed independent presidential candidate is likely to emerge in 2008 or, if not then, in 2012.”
Why can’t we have a serious, innovative, truth-telling, pragmatic party without any of the baggage of the Democrats and Republicans?
And it’s possible—indeed, for a variety of reasons, more so than it’s been in our lifetimes. In 1992, a megalomaniacal kook with no political experience, running in a system stacked powerfully against third parties, won 19 percent of the presidential vote against a moderate Democrat and moderate Republican—and in two states, Perot actually beat one of the major-party candidates. In 1912, former president Teddy Roosevelt, running as a third-party progressive, got more votes than Taft, the Republican nominee. The Republicans, remember, began as a dicey new party until their second nominee, Lincoln, managed to get elected president.
It wouldn’t be easy or cheap to create this party. It would doubtless require a rich visionary or two—a Bloomberg, a Steve Jobs, a Paul Tudor Jones—to finance it in the beginning. And since a new party hasn’t won the presidency in a century and a half, it would have to struggle for credibility, to convince a critical mass of voters that a vote for its candidates would be, in the near term, an investment in a far better political future and not simply a wasted ballot.
Is this a quixotic, wishful conceit of a few disgruntled gadflies? Sure. This is only a magazine; we’re only writers. But the beautiful, radical idea behind democracy was government by amateurs. As the historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote, “An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of the ruts he has never been trained in.” We have a vision if not a true platform, sketches for a party if not quite a set of blueprints. Every new reality must start with a set of predispositions, a scribbled first draft, an earnest dream of the just possibly possible. In our amateur parlor-game fashion we are very serious about trying to get the conversation started, and moving in the right direction.
And New York, as it happens, is the ideal place to give birth to such a movement. This city’s spirit—clear-sighted, tough-minded, cosmopolitan, hardworking, good-humored, financially acute, tolerant, romantic—should infuse the party. Despite our lefty reputation, for a generation now this city’s governance has tended to be strikingly moderate, highly flexible rather than ideological or doctrinaire. While we have a consistent and overwhelming preference for Democratic presidential candidates, for 24 of the past 28 years the mayors we have elected—Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg—have been emphatically independent-minded moderates whose official party labels have been flags of convenience. (And before them, there was John Lindsay—elected as a Republican and reelected as an independent before becoming an official Democrat in order to run for president.) Moreover, New York’s stealth-independent-party regime has worked: bankruptcy avoided, the subways air-conditioned and graffiti-free, crime miraculously down, the schools reorganized and beginning to improve.
We’re certainly not part of red-state America, but when push comes to shove we are really not blue in the D.C.–Cambridge–Berkeley–Santa Monica sense. We are, instead, like so much of the country, vividly purple. And so—for now—we’ll call our hypothetical new entity the Purple Party.
“Centrist” is a bit of a misnomer for the paradigm we envision, since that suggests an uninspired, uninspiring, have-it-both-ways, always-split-the-difference approach born entirely of political calculation. And that’s because one of the core values will be honesty. Not a preachy, goody-goody, I’ll-never-lie-to-you honesty of the Jimmy Carter type, but a worldly, full-throated and bracing candor. The moderation will often be immoderate in style and substance, rather than tediously middle-of-the-road. Pragmatism will be an animating party value—even when the most pragmatic approach to a given problem is radical.
Take health care. The U.S. system requires a complete overhaul, so that every American is covered, from birth to death, whether he is employed or self-employed or unemployed. What?!? Socialized medicine? Whatever. Half of our medical costs are already paid by government, and the per capita U.S. expenditure ($6,280 per year) is nearly twice what the Canadians and Europeans and Japanese pay—suggesting that we could afford to buy our way out of the customer-service problems that afflict other national health systems. Beyond the reformist virtues of justice and sanity, our party would make the true opportunity-society argument for government-guaranteed universal health coverage: Devoted as the Purple Party is to labor flexibility and entrepreneurialism, we want to make it as easy as possible for people to change jobs or quit to start their own businesses, and to do that we must break the weirdly neo-feudal, only-in-America link between one’s job and one’s medical care.
But the Purple Party wouldn’t use its populist, progressive positions on domestic issues like health to avoid talking about military policy, the way Democrats tend to do. We would declare straight out that, alas, the fight against Islamic jihadism must be a top-priority, long-term, and ruthless military, diplomatic, and cultural struggle.
We would be unapologetic in our support of a well-funded military and (depoliticized) intelligence apparatus, and the credible threat of force as a foreign policy tool. We would seldom accuse Democrats of being dupes and wimps or Republicans of being fearmongers and warmongers—but we would have the guts and the standing to do both.
And as we defend our country and civilization against apocalyptic religious fanatics for whom politics and religious belief are one and who consider America irredeemably heathen, we will be especially keen about adhering to the Founders’ (and, for that matter, Christ’s) ideal concerning the separation of religion and politics—to render to government the things that are its and to God the things that are his. Our party will enthusiastically embrace people of all religious beliefs, but we will never claim special divine virtue for our policies—we’ll leave that to the Pat Robertsons and Osama bin Ladens. Where to draw the line is mostly a matter of common sense. Public reminders to honor one’s parents and love one’s neighbor, and not to lie, steal, or commit adultery or murder? Fine. Genesis taught as science in public schools, and government cosmologists forced by their PR handlers to give a shout-out to creationism? No way. Kids who want to wear crucifixes or yarmulkes or head scarves to those same schools? Sure, why not? And so on.
Our new party will be highly moral (but never moralistic) as well as laissez-faire. In other words, the Purple Party will be both liberal and American in the old-fashioned senses.
So: Are you in?